Whether you like Apple or not, it's impossible to ignore the colossal impact the company’s had on digital music.
The first MP3 player didn’t arrive from a Cupertino lab, but the first one that truly mattered — the iPod — did. Similarly, the iTunes Store wasn’t the first place to buy digital music, but it nonetheless gave the entire industry a kick up the backside.
So it goes in streaming — Apple’s late to the party, but looking to shake everything up.
Has it succeeded? Sort of.
Apple Music’s like a surprisingly good 12-inch remix that cleverly borrows samples from everyone else, but with the tiny snag that the vinyl’s got a couple of bloody great scratches.
Same as it ever was
Given Apple’s astonishing pile of money and its clout within the industry, you could argue that you’d have to be a fairly brave or foolish artist to want to miss out on a piece of the Apple Music pie.
Unsurprisingly, then, the Apple Music catalogue on launch largely resembles every other streaming catalogue. We’re hearing noises about 30 million titles — and the usual grumpy holdouts. (Prince is one, and The Beatles, despite being on the iTunes Store, are also absent.)
We tried to fox the system, delving deep into indie territory, but bar the odd ‘missing’ single we subsequently found on Spotify, Apple Music comes up trumps.
Voyage of discovery
We admit to scoffing a bit — all right, a lot — during WWDC, when Apple banged on about humans ‘curating’ music for its new service, and how totally amazing that would be.
And, frankly, things don't start well. The interface is borrowed from the earlier Beats Music service and has you prodding red circles to tell Apple Music what you like. It's intuitive but also quite fiddly, and far too easy to miss your intended target.
Then everything changes. The ‘For You’ section provides a bunch of albums and playlists it thinks you’ll get on with. Within three days and a smattering of ‘likes’, we started to wonder if Apple Music had become a bit psychic. The suggestions were really good — far beyond the relatively bland safety of Spotify or the ‘trying too hard to be cool’ of Tidal. It feels human, even if it isn't.
But then there are other bits that are human. You can delve into loads of artist-specific playlists created by real people, with selections even for relatively small indies. This may lack the social aspect of Spotify's collective playlist creation, but the results are often excellent. In addition, you can perform searches, try getting Siri to play something, check out the mess of content in the ‘New’ tab, or just give up and listen to Beats 1 radio.
Lost in Music
When it comes to user interfaces and experiences, the bar’s set pretty low in streaming music services. Nonetheless, Apple’s done a bit of a limbo dance anyway.
At launch, it’s all a bit messy and cluttered. The on-boarding process is wretched; we already mentioned the red circles of evil, but even something as seemingly straightforward as starting the free trial is potentially confusing when it starts talking about a monthly charge.
The problem extends right down to some of the most basic things you might want to do: whereas to play an artist’s discography in Spotify you just click play, in Apple Music, you must create a playlist and laboriously click ‘…’ to add each album to it.
Elsewhere, the ‘New’ tab is stuffed full of so much content that it’s like a desperate music-store salesperson firing CDs at your face, while the lack of recent and liked automated playlists is irritating.
Still, the playlist pages are clean and simple, Apple Music does mostly click after a while, and integration with your existing music nestled in iTunes (or Music on iOS) is pretty seamless.
Apple SVP Eddy Cue on Twitter responded to someone moaning about audio compression in Apple Music by stating: “bit rate depends on whether you are on WiFi or cellular”.
Naturally, Apple’s subsequently kept quiet about what the actual bit-rates are, but sources have stated that Apple Music maxes out at the quality level found on the iTunes Store — a perfectly respectable 256 kbps AAC that to our ears seems more or less identical to Spotify’s highest quality (320 kbps Ogg Vorbis).
On cellular connections, the quality is noticeably lower, but not awful. Yahoo Tech guessed it was firing out 128 kbps, which is a bit like someone replacing your nice CD collection with some old tapes.
The bigger problem is that Apple provides no manual override. Well, that and audiophiles no doubt wailing that lossless audio isn’t being pumped directly into their ears by cables made from platinum and unicorn rainbow tears.
Dance to the radio
There’s a lot more going on in Apple Music than just playing albums from a huge collection, although not all of it’s good.
‘Connect’ is, at present, a fairly risible ‘social network’, where musicians broadcast and fans comment; tech pundit Lucy Hattersley rightly noted it’s “Twitter without your friends” and “what Twitter would be like if it just had Sponsored posts”.
Music videos are a touch better, although it’s a lottery whether your favourite artists will have any to offer, and they play in a comically small window on the iPad.
Apple’s more interesting play is Beats 1, a worldwide radio station that sits somewhere between Radio 1 and 6 Music. It’s quite commercial, but plays some decent rarer stuff, too.
It won’t revolutionise anything, but it again showcases the human touch at the heart of Apple’s service, and it might even shove some younglings towards traditional radio. (That is if they can get over the fact people are “talking all over the music”.)
Apple Music verdict
Although we’ve griped quite a bit in this review, we should make one thing very clear: All music streaming services should be terrified right about now.
Apple Music might be buggy at times, and it might have a UI only its mother could love, but this is an entirely new launch and it’s already nipping at the heels of the best in the industry.
Our various concerns rob Apple Music of Stuff’s highest rating, but unless its main rivals also up their game, we’ll be amazed if it’s not leading the pack by the end of 2015.